Chabad Behind Bars: A Chasidic Response to the Penal System

Chabad Behind Bars: A Chasidic Response to the Penal System

By Dovi Seldowitz

Of the various outreach efforts Chabad is known for, some are regarded for their high public profile (menorah lightings, Passover sedarim, etc.), while others involve less hype (like translating Chasidic texts); some Chabad activities emphasize individual involvement and commitment (such as encouraging adult men to don tefillin), and some seek for entire community participation (holiday services, Torah study classes, etc.). As much as each of these types of activities vary in terms of audience size and publicity, they stand separate from the unique outreach initiatives sponsored by the Chabad movement, including Chabad’s work with prisoners and inmates. Jews, like every other group includes members who have committed crime, been prosecuted and sentenced to years in jail; Chabad is among the few Jewish organizations involved in caring for the needs of Jews in prisons.

Aleph Institute, a Chabad organization based in Miami, Florida, has devoted itself to assisting Jewish prisoners, helping them cope with life in prison as well as reintegration into a life after imprisonment. Few Jewish movements claim a stake on this area of Jewish need. All too often organized Jewish communities are in the position where it is easy to overlook the Jewish incarcerated. In this instance, Chabad has filled a serious void in the care and responsibility the Jewish community has towards imprisoned Jews.

Through Chabad’s Aleph Institute, Jewish prisoners are finding themselves with the critical support they need to keep them from sliding back to crime following their release. Aleph’sinmate rehabilitation program has been recognized as a success story in terms of reducing rates of recidivism – the tendency for former inmates to continue crime even after their time in prison – and providing support to Jewish prisoners long after their release.[1] But in truth, long before Chabad’s formal offender rehabilitation program, individual Chasidim have gone to local prisons to lead High Holiday services, knowing that without their effort (travelling to prisons while their friends and families celebrated at home) these prisoners would not celebrate the Jewish festivals.[2]

Social scientists have long noted that offender treatment programs cannot expect their attendees to stay out of trouble completely. On average, such programs reach a success rate of 50-60%. Originally, when this research was first published, the tendency was to ‘see the glass as half full’, but with time, and continuing research showing no change in success rates, the perspective turned pessimistic, seeing the same glass as ‘half empty’.[3]

For Chabad, however, no good deed is too small and no outreach program is considered a failure for not attracting enough participants. The movement’s attitude towards all forms of Jewish outreach has long been framed as, primarily, a spiritual endeavor. This positive attitude towards the significance of even the most minimal achievements was the result of the emphasis of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who insisted that each and every good deed, no matter how seemly small, helped the world become a better place.

Chabad’s offender treatment programming has helped inspired those Jews who are truly in need of support and encouragement. Chabad Chasidim stand out for their dedication to imprisoned Jews, helping them remain attached to the Jewish tradition through incarceration. It is the profound dedication to assisting a fellow Jew, coupled with the forcefully positivistic perspective that each good deed is a world of its own, that leads Chabad to achieve success in rehabilitating former prisoners, allowing these men and women to discover joy in life and happiness in living.

Footnotes:

[1] See, Dovid Zaklikowski, “Aleph Institute Lowers Recidivism Rate, Says Chief Justice,” Lubavitch.com, November 16, 2014.
[2] See for example, Lis Harris, Holy Days: The World of The Hasidic Family, Summit Books, New York: 1985, p. 15.
[3] See, James Bonta and D. A. Andrews. “Risk-need-responsivity model for offender assessment and rehabilitation.” Rehabilitation 6 (2007): 1-22.

A Language Called Chabad: The Unique Expressions of the Chabad Movement

A Language Called Chabad: The Unique Expressions of the Chabad Movement

By Dovi Seldowitz

Chasidic communities are typically thought to consist of native Yiddish speakers whose English speaking skills are often somewhat limited. As the sociolinguists might have it, the Yiddish language is a tool for these groups to socialize their members, aligning them with the values of their community.[1] Chabad, by contrast, is known for a balanced bilingualism; speaking and writing in English is a non-issue in Chabad, the movement publishes its own Chasidic teachings in English, both as translations of existing works as well as original writings of English speaking authors. The fact that a Chabad community may speak English as a primary language does not mean they will speak in the same manner as the English speaking majority. It some sense, Chabad is actually a linguistic minority having developed their own peculiar speaking styles, often mixing in Yiddish and Hebrew words in their everyday talk.[2]

Social scientists have pointed out how ethnographic investigations of how language is used in various social groups is critical to providing a lens through which to view broader cultural processes.[3] Of particular interest is the phenomenon known as “code-switching”, using words from more than one language in a single sentence or conversation. Code-switching is frequently used by linguistic minorities to indicate group boundaries.[4] In Chabad, code-switching is used very often when indicating certain activities (outreach, celebratory, learning and identity) that have been shaped by the philosophy of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Examples of words that Chabad Chasidim use in the Yiddish or Hebrew original (often with the claim that the word is difficult to render properly in English) are shlichus, hafotzo, mivtzoim (all referring to outreach), farbrengen, chag hageulah, y’mei d’pagra, (referring to Chasidic celebrations) ma’amer, sicha, igros, chitas (referring to Chasidic texts), hashpoa, bitul, and hiskashrus (referring to the Chasid’s identity and relationship to his/her rebbe).

For Chabad Chasidim, the teachings of Chabad philosophy, Jewish outreach activities and the individual relationship between Chasid and rebbe is of central, utmost importance. While other Chasidic communities utilize the Yiddish language as a socializing element, Chabad must rely on a hybrid linguistic form to help establish and maintain the unique Chabad identity. A Chabad Chasid might translate ordinary Hebrew words quite easily, but words that are uniquely Chabad (“Chabadisms”) must remain pure and unadulterated, attesting to the significance these ideas occupy in the minds and hearts of the Chabad community.

Footnotes:

[1] See, Ayala Fader, “Literacy, bilingualism, and gender in a Hasidic community.” Linguistics and Education 12, no. 3 (2001): 261-283.

[2] See for example, Sarah Bunin Benor, “The learned/t: phonological variation in Orthodox Jewish English.” University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics 7, no. 3 (2001): 2.

[3] See, Fairclough, Norman, Jane Mulderrig, and Ruth Wodak. “Critical discourse analysis.” Discourse Studies: A Multidisciplinary Introduction, Teun A Van Dijk, ed., SAGE (2011): 357-378.

[4] See, Monica Heller, ed. Codeswitching: Anthropological and Sociolinguistic Perspectives, Vol. 48, Walter de Gruyter, 1988; Monica Heller, Linguistic Minorities and Modernity: A Sociolinguistic Ethnography. A&C Black, 2006.

#Chabadisms

Chabad and Technology: A Complimentary Mix

Chabad and Technology: A Complimentary Mix

By Dovi Seldowitz

In contrast to other Chasidic groups, Chabad is noted for their remarkable use of technology in documenting Chabad Chasidic life and for the purpose of Jewish outreach. Other Chasidic communities have shunned technological advances, believing they allow a secular world to easily penetrate their community and undermine communal values, to some extent, these Chasidim believe that certain technological innovations are inherently evil, by contrast, Chabad has viewed these innovations as mere tools to be utilized in any number of ways. The advanced capabilities of communication technology (radio, television and the internet) as new opportunities to spread the message of Chasidism.

Chabad appears to have a dual focus in using technology, both concerns have long been in use in the Chabad movement since the arrival of the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, to the United States. Chabad has utilized technology for both “insider” (internal) and “outsider” (external) purposes. Internally, for the Chabad community, technology has been used to preserve historical moments for the movement and the public sermons of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Externally, Chabad uses technology for disseminating Chasidic and general Jewish teachings as well as for increasing public awareness of Judaism and Jewish practice.

Examples of Chabad’s internal uses of technology include photographs and video recordings of the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, and the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, as well as photographs and recordings documenting contemporary Chabad culture (weddings, community events, etc.). Videos of the Rebbe have acquired something of a central pillar in Chabad culture; “Rebbe videos” are frequently played in schools, synagogues and at public events. Websites, both by the Chabad movement as well as those independently run, allow Chabad culture to be accessible in the internet age. Additionally, mainstream social media sites have allowed Chabad communities to connect online; today, individual Chasidim may keep in touch with one another, wherever they may live. Examples of Chabad’s external uses of technology include publications in newsletter and magazine forms, radio and television broadcasts, satellite transmissions and websites to spread Chabad’s message of Jewish awareness and practice. Social media plays an important role in getting those messages into the public sphere.

A number of Jewish sociologists and social scientists have studied Chabad’s use of technology, noting the unique combination of a traditional Jewish group utilizing the latest technological innovations for preserving Chabad culture and spreading Judaism.[1] Although some have thought that the institutional use of the internet by Chabad organizations is primarily performed in order to disseminate information on Chabad and Judaism rather than create an online community. The internet is, for Chabad, a temporary space designed to bring Jews together and encourage them to seek out in-person encounters with Chabad shluchim.[2] Whether this assessment is entirely accurate or not, it proposes that some underlying tensions still exist in the way Chabad uses technology.

Chabad’s use of technology, both for internal and external use, set it apart from other Chasidic groups that have frequently shunned advanced communication technologies. The Chabad movement’s ability to increase awareness of Jewish practices have been undeniably enhanced by its use of a range of technologies. And while some maintain that certain tensions still exist in Chabad’s relationship to technology, one cannot deny that the impact of radio, video and the internet has changed Chabad both inside and out.

Footnotes:

[1] For sources on Chabad and technology, see, Jeffrey Shandler, “The virtual Rebbe,” Jews, God, and Videotape: Religion and Media in America. NYU Press, 2009; Maya Balakirsky Katz, The Visual Culture of Chabad. Cambridge University Press, 2010; Oren Golan, “12 Charting frontiers of online religious communities.” Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds, Heidi A. Campbell, ed., Routledge (2012): 155; Sharrona Pearl, “Exceptions to the Rule: Chabad-Lubavitch and the Digital Sphere.” Journal of Media and Religion 13, no. 3 (2014): 123-137.

[2] See, Pearl (2014).

A Chabad Standard: Scholarship, Publishing and Community Interest

A Chabad Standard: Scholarship, Publishing and Community Interest

By Dovi Seldowitz

Chasidic culture is often conceived as one filled with romanticized portraits of saintly men, impoverished Chasidim and the miracles they’ve experienced. Chabad, however, is known as the more cerebral group; the very name of the movement refers to intellectual traits. And while Chabad also celebrates storytelling, it is very much secondary to its scholarly and intellectual tradition. The Chabad movement has set a high standard among Orthodox communities in publishing scholarly works; Chabad also can attest to high community interest and involvement in advancing scholarship at a range of levels.

As compared with other Chasidic movements, Chabad’s approach to scholarship includes some fairly unique elements; its focus on critical historiography and publication history, and publishing scholarly journals with contributions from local students and community members. The corpus of Chabad works available today would not be readily available today if not for the work of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who insisted on publishing all manuscripts of earlier Chabad rebbes in a professional manner, producing well-made and aesthetically pleasing literary works.[1]

Chabad’s awareness of the need to preserve and study its own history has developed beyond the hagiographical tendencies commonplace in religious movements. It would be understandable for any movement, Chasidic or not, to focus on storytelling incorporating moral lessons over critical history. And yet, Chabad has published works in the spirit of critical academic scholarship. Examples of such works include the books and articles by the late Rabbi Yehoshua Mondshine (1947-2014),[2] as well as the volumes put forth by Chabad librarians on the history of the Chabad movement in Russia, Israel and the United States.[3]

Storytelling and narrative are popular topics of study for sociologists and other social scientists,[4] although these forms of social history have to be interpreted by the researcher leading earlier sociologists to entirely reject the analysis of narratives as it would lead to inconclusive assessments of the subject matter.[5] But while storytelling and narrative is common to all groups, it is not common for a group to exert considerable effort in a critical self-assessment. Critical scholarship is popular in Chabad, not only among the movement’s deep thinkers but even among the laity. Chabad communities worldwide have published scholarly journals consisting of the contributions of community members and local yeshiva students. Consistent with Chabad’s “bottom up” approach, the quality of the journal content varies greatly, reflecting the real interests taken up by the members of that particular Chabad community.

What is so unique about Chabad scholarship? It is both professional and amateur, geared to scholars as well as community driven, it focuses on a range of religious and historiographic topics. Chabad writings are also aimed at being accessible to the public, with a wealth of material found in print and online. Chabad certainly lives up to its name as the intellectual Chasidic group, where scholarship and publishing are central features of the movement’s legacy.

Footnotes:

[1] See, Don Seeman, “Publishing Godliness: The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Other Revolution,” Jewish Review of Books, July 16, 2014.

[2] See, Israel Bartal, “True Knowledge and Wisdom: On Orthodox Historiography,” Studies in Contemporary Jewry: Volume 10, (1994): 178-192.

[3] See, “New Volume on Chabad History Published,” Lubavitch.com, September 21, 2010.

[4] See for example, Francesca Polletta, Pang Ching Bobby Chen, Beth Gharrity Gardner and Alice Motes, “The sociology of storytelling.” Annual Review of Sociology 37 (2011): 109-130.

[5] See, Patricia Ewick and Susan S. Silbey, “Subversive stories and hegemonic tales: Toward a sociology of narrative.” Law and Society Review (1995): 197-226.

Yiddish in the Free Market: Multilingualism in Chabad

Yiddish in the Free Market: Multilingualism in Chabad

By Dovi Seldowitz

Chasidic communities are noted for their steadfast commitment to speaking and writing in Yiddish; by contrast, the mostly secular movements to preserve Yiddish as a spoken language have been on the decline since the founding of the State of Israel. Chabad is similar in this regard, Yiddish is still spoken by many Chabad Chasidim today, yet, Chabad, as an international movement, has also acquired a number of non-Yiddish speaking Chasidim and has published a number of works in these various languages. In this sense, Yiddish is just one of the many languages (albeit a rather central one) of Chabad today.

The Chabad movement was founded in White Russia where Yiddish was the main spoken language of the Jews in that region, however, like the other Jewish communities at that time, most scholarly texts, including Chasidic ones, were written in Hebrew. This began to change with the emigration of Chabad Chasidim to the United States, Israel and other countries. Subsequent generations learned the languages of their host countries, however, Yiddish remained the de facto (and most preferred) language of Chasidim.[1]

One of the earliest social scientific studies on the Chabad movement was on the bilingualism of the Crown Heights Chabad community published in the late 1960s.[2] Though the Chabad community at that time included immigrant Russian speakers (and Chabad Chasidim could read and understand Hebrew), the dominant spoken languages were Yiddish (of the immigrant parents and for educational and religious uses) and English (of the second generation and for general use). So strong was the usage of both Yiddish and English that the author of the study concluded that Chabad would continue to remain a bilingual community for subsequent generations.

The dominance of Yiddish in Chabad waned as the movement’s outreach success grew. A number of non-Yiddish speakers joined Chabad as adults (including ba’alei tshuva) who required translations of existing Chabad literature. Chabad published a number of works in multiple languages including English, Spanish, French among others. A significant number of Jews living in Israel from non-Ashkenazic backgrounds, speaking only Hebrew, begun to associate themselves with Chabad. At the same time, the English-only population within the Chabad community grew, further challenged the centrality of Yiddish in the public sphere leading some of the educational institutions in Crown Heights subsequently switched the language of instruction from Yiddish to English.[3] At other schools, including some Chabad flagship institutions, Yiddish is still favored as the language for instruction.[4]

Today, Yiddish remains a central language in Chabad, though it is not spoken to the same extent as in earlier generations. Chabad now stands out from other Chasidic communities for its multilingualism. This multilingualism is bound to increase as Chabad continues its outreach efforts. And while Yiddish will always be treasured in the hearts and minds of Chabad Chasidim, its usage might hinge on the success of its proponents in advancing Yiddish as in the community.

Footnotes:

[1] Yiddish is also the language of the majority of the Rebbe’s published talks (sichot), although many of these talks have been translated, it is most commonly read as a study text in the Yiddish original (even by non-Yiddish speakers).

[2] See, George Jochnowitz, “Bilingualism and dialect mixture among Lubavitcher Hasidic children.” American Speech (1968): 182-200.

[3] See, “The Change: Chumash AND [Not IN] Yiddish,” CrownHeights.info, September 22, 2011.

[4] See, R. C. Berman, “Yiddish Still Spoken (And Taught) Here,” Lubavitch.com, April 2, 2008.

Ohel Chabad Lubavitch in Queens, NY

Death in Chabad: Religious Rituals, Mystical Perspectives and Social Effects

Death in Chabad: Religious Rituals, Mystical Perspectives and Social Effects

By Dovi Seldowitz

Among Orthodox Jews, Chabad is noted for having many unique customs for various Jewish occasions. While Jewish law is traditionally judged by the rulings found in the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, Chabad turns to a similar code written by its founder, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. Generally speaking, there are few major differences between the codes, and even fewer rulings in Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s text are solely his own. That said, the number of subtleties in the Chabad code coupled with the establishment of variety of Chasidic customs create the impression that for every Jewish occasion, Chabad might just have an unique added custom.

In Orthodox Judaism there are a set of rituals that surround death. For the deceased, there is the confession prior to death (“vidui“); for others it is the burial process, the seven days of mourning (“shiva“) and the recitation of the kaddish prayer. In this regard, Chabad would initially appear no different from other Orthodox communities; barring a few specific customs regarding burial and the kaddish prayer, there would seem to be little that would distinguish a death in Chabad from a death in other movements.

Even Chabad teachings concerning death are fairly consistent with traditional Jewish philosophy and mysticism. An underlying notion in both Chabad and other Jewish teachings is that the body is temporary, transient and ultimately has little value when the spirit no longer inhabits within it. By contrast, the soul both precedes and survives the body. Chabad philosophy speaks of death in both rational and mystical tones. Rationally, death means the end of person’s life in this world, a loss for that person’s family, friends and community, death is humbling and most importantly, after death, whatever values one believed in and stood for during their lifetime can be easily forgotten. Mystically, death means the departure of the soul from the body, its psychic turmoil and ultimate resting and elevation, and in some cases, the soul reaches out and attempts to communicate with people still living (via dreams or particular forms of meditation).[1]

But Chabad, (as well as several other Chasidic groups), emphasize a particular set of ideas with regard to the death of a tzaddik, a truly righteous person. In Chabad, a whole series of rituals have been prescribed for the passing and yartzeit of a rebbe. Sociologists have noted that the rituals that surround death (burial, mourning, etc.) provides a type of “sheltering canopy” for defending individuals from a most unsettling experience that would otherwise devastate them completely.[2] For a the devoted Chasid, no experience is more upsetting then the death of his/her rebbe. The customs developed in Chabad surrounding the death of a rebbe help give the Chasid strength to carry on and to continue to be inspired by his/her rebbe’s teachings. Customs unique to Chabad include being called for an aliyah to the Torah on the Shabbos before the rebbe’s yahrzeit and the recitation of a teaching by the rebbe (specifically, the last Chasidic discourse recited by the rebbe during his lifetime).[3] Chabad customs serve a similar social effect as traditional Jewish customs surrounding death; in the case of Chabad, the customs are specifically fit to relive the anguish felt by the Chasid following his/her rebbe’s passing.

As Chabad is often noted for its unique customs in various settings in Jewish life, it is not surprising that there is are customs relating to death that bear the Chabad mark. Chabad philosophy contains a number of teachings regarding death, some are quite practical, others quite lofty. Chabad’s particular practices for the passing of a rebbe, including the study of the rebbe’s teachings, help relive the pain and anguish felt by Chasidim and allow them to continue to be inspired by the lives of their teacher.

“Against your will, you are born against your will, you die.” (Ethics of the Fathers, 4:2)

Dedicated in memory of Sylvie Stern of Canberra, Australia.

Footnotes:

[1] See, Rabbi Dovber of Lubavitch, Kuntres Inyan HaHishtatchus (printed in Ma’amarei Admur Ha’emtzoeiKuntreisim), Kehot Publication Society, Brooklyn: New York, (1995): pp. 19-30.

[2] See, Peter L. Berger, The Social Reality of Religion, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973, page 63.

[3] See, Manchem Mendel Shneerson, Igrot Kodesh: K’Vod K’Dushas Admur Shlita, Vol IV, Letter 884. (1987): pp. 141-142.

Does Chabad Welcome Artists? A Short History of #ChabadArt

Does Chabad Welcome Artists?

A Short History of #ChabadArt

By Dovi Seldowitz

The contemporary Chasidic attitude towards art is popularly believed to be not entirely welcoming; in Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev, this attitude helps set the background of a young Chasidic artist who is not accepted in his community and must leave to pursue his artistic interests (the novel’s twist, Asher Lev finds exclusive and particular expression in the painting of nudes and crucifixes).[1] While Potok’s “Ludover” community is a thinly veiled reference the the Lubavitcher community, the oppositional attitude towards art attributed to the Chabad movement is by no means exact; art in Chabad may not have included the styles painted by the fictitious Asher Lev, but it is a far cry from the truth to simply write off the Chabad movement’s attitude towards art as unwelcoming.

Sociologists point out that the most objective condition in determining the content and form in a work of art is the social position of the artist and his or her standing in the community, their relationship to the interests of the group to which they belong.[2] The real-life Chabad artists are known for their vivid depictions of Jewish ritual, the Chasidic community, and Chabad outreach. And the Chabad community boasts of a number of respected artists, a few permanent galleries, and most recently, a steady stream of creative spirit in the artistic depictions of Jewish and Chasidic themes.

Contemporary Chabad art dates to the 1940s when Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, while working under his father-in-law, the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, oversaw the publication of a children’s magazine and had commissioned a young artist, Michel Schwartz, to illustrate the magazine’s comic section. The same artist was commissioned to design the logo of Chabad’s main outreach organization, Merkos L’inyonei Chinuch. Those early roots aside, Chabad art only achieved serious recognition in the 1970s when the Brooklyn Museum featured an exhibition on Chasidic art featuring eight Chabad artists; following that event, Chabad established the Chasidic Art Institute (Chai Art Gallery) in Crown Heights to which the Rebbe personally donated.[3]

The artists featured at the Brooklyn Museum exhibition and subsequently at the Chai Art Gallery included artists who were well known in the community, Hendel Lieberman, Zalman Klienman and Michoel Muchnik. More recently, two new galleries have opened in Crown Heights showcasing the work of younger Chabad artists who have fused contemporary styles and Jewish and Chabad symbols.

The Chabad movement has produced a number of talented artists and they have enjoyed a favorable standing in the community. The Rebbe was known to support Chasidic art and had personal relationships with noted Jewish artist Yaakov Agam and sculptor Jaques Lipschitz. Keeping these facts in mind, we can conclude that the Chabad community is most certainly a welcoming home to Chasidic artists.

Dedicated to Mrs. Sara Seldowitz, a true Chabad artist.

Footnotes:

[1] See, Chaim Potok, My Name is Asher Lev, Knopf, 1972.

[2] See, Arnold Hauser, “Art as a product of society,” The Sociology of Art (Routledge Revivals), Routledge, 2011, page 137.

[3] See, Michel Schwartz, “The Rebbe and the Artist,” Chabad.org.